In your interest.
Online Personal Finance Magazine
No beating about the bush.
The RTI is one of the most powerful tools and an essential democratic right of every Indian citizen. A handy guide takes you through the steps to file an effective guide
The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI) that came into force eight years back has proven to be one of the most powerful tools put to use by every Indian—big and small—to obtain information that was all along denied under the garb of ‘official secrecy’. Thanks to the benefits of the RTI, many of India’s biggest scams and scandals are now exposed.
Deepak Sandhu, chief information commissioner (CIC), very rightly says, “RTI is a game changer. It has democratised information to the citizen’s advantage. The citizen is central in the Act. Other countries offer freedom of information while our legislation recognises it as a right.”
Here are a few tips to make effective use, to extract the most appropriate response, and minimise the possibilities of rejection on frivolous grounds.
(Nagesh Kini is a Mumbai-based chartered accountant turned activist.)
Public Information Officers -PIOs not performing their duty of providing information is a frequent experience of an RTI activist
Early this week, I once again experienced rejection, or rather telling of a brazen lie regarding the controversial water cut in Pune that was stalled recently after the public hue and cry. The decision to cut water supply was taken in a meeting of the Canal Committee despite 100% water levels in three out of four dams (that supply water to Pune). When I went for inspection of files in the water supply department of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), I was told by a senior engineer who is also an appellate authority that no minutes of meeting exist as it was a verbal discussion.
I was shocked to learn that a vital issue like water supply is casually decided over a chat between municipal authorities and ministers Ajit Pawar and Harshavardhan Patil who are part of the Canal Committee meeting. I then decided to inspect the same files in the irrigation department and immediately got a copy of the minutes of the Canal Committee meeting. While the documents reveal PMC’s utter negligence in ensuring that Pune does not have water cuts post-good monsoons, it was shocking that a senior engineer of PMC should lie about the non-existence of these documents.
Other activists too have had similar experiences. As per the Commonwealth Human Right Initiative (CHRI)’s latest annual report on status of RTI use in India (based on the annual reports of 10 information commissions), only 10% of RTI queries are rejected. Noted RTI activist, Maj Gen SCN Jatar (retd.) counters, “My experience with applications sent by me and by a number of citizens, who come to us for advice, is that the information, which is denied is generally the critical one. Giving you an example, I asked for 'consent' under the Air and Water Acts for municipal solid waste processing plants, both from the municipal corporation and from the pollution control board. Both gave me 'authorisation' under the MSW (Handling & Management) Rules, 2000 and not 'consent'. This critical information is essential because the plants are creating havoc in polluting the ground water and the ambient air. This is adversely affecting the health of the citizens.”
“Of course, we go in for an appeal. The Appellate Authority directs that the information be given. It is again denied. Hence, we put in a second appeal. Currently, the information commissioner is hearing second appeals of May 2011 vintage. Even after the hearing, it takes almost six months to issue orders. The PIO is generally not fined and if fined, the amount is rarely deducted from the person's salary. We want information, which may still be far away. Hence, do we wait for more than three years to get a decision in such critical and straight forward matters? In spite of orders for preference to senior citizens, it is generally not accorded,” he said.
RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar too agrees. He said, “I am also of the view that public authorities are filing false compliance reports. Maharashtra State Information Commission (SIC) has also said that 96% RTI applicants get desired information—in fact, it is the other way round.’’
Venkatesh Nayak, who has compiled the report for CHRI clarifies that, “We have mentioned in a prominent place that ‘if the figures published in the Annual Reports are to be believed’. I have no way of finding out if the figures are accurate, hence the cautionary phrase. This report sets the ground for undertaking such inquiries. As these reports are to be tabled in the respective legislatures one would presume that the SICs and Central Information Commission (CIC) are submitting true facts as collected from the public authorities. It is absolutely crucial to cross check the claims about disposals and rejections. Our report should be used as a basis to question the reports of ICs as no such attempt has been made till date.’’
Excerpts from the CHRI’s latest annual report of RTI use in India:
Proportion of Rejections at the RTI Application Stage
Anecdotal evidence across the country has made many civil society actors and activists believe that rejection of request is the norm in many public authorities and access to information is an exception, which they believe amounts to reversing the objectives of both RTI laws. However, if the data published in the Annual Reports of Information Commissions covered by this study is to be believed, only a small proportion of the total number of requests is rejected at the application stage.
• In States with smaller populations like Meghalaya and Mizoram less than 1% rejection was reported at the RTI application stage.
• In Karnataka where public authorities received close to 2.93 lakh (293,000) requests the proportion of rejections was a mere 0.30%.
• Some of the highest proportions of rejections were observed in the context of public authorities under the Central Government (8.14%) and those under the State Government of Maharashtra (7.2%) both of which received more than 6.5 lakh (650,000).
• Although the macro picture in all governments covered by this study indicates rejection of not more than 10% of the total number of RTI applications received, some of the public authorities had very high rates of rejection. For example, the rejection rate at the offices of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and Directorate General of Safeguards was 100%. The offices of the Director General, Income Tax (Investigation) based in Ahmedabad (86.8%), Jaipur (71.6%), Kolkata (66.7%) and New Delhi (59.5%) also had a very high rejection rate.
• The Jammu and Kashmir State Information Commission has reported that while RTI applications received by public authorities in that State grew phenomenally, the rejection rate dropped from 9% (2009-10) to 4% (2010-11) and stood at 1.37% for the last reporting year (2011-12).
• Only the Central Information Commission and the State Information Commissions of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have provided in their Annual Reports, clause-wise break up [Sections 8(1)(a) to (j), 9 and 24] of the number of times the exemptions were invoked by public authorities to reject information requests at the application stage.
• The largest number of rejections of RTI applications (15,279) in public authorities under Central Government occurred on the grounds of protecting personal privacy [Central RTI Act, Section 8(1)(j)]. In Andhra Pradesh the exemptions pertaining to contempt of court and prohibition on the disclosure of information by courts was invoked most frequently (131 times) to reject RTI applications [Central RTI Act, Section 8(1)(b)]. Public authorities in Karnataka are said to have invoked most frequently (101 times) the exemption relating to police investigation, arrests and criminal trials [Central RTI Act, Section 8(1)(h)].
• More than 4,000 RTI applications are said to have been rejected because they
pertained to the 25 intelligence and security organisations notified by the Central
Government under Section 24 of the Central RTI Act.
• Information Commissions must pay special attention to public authorities, where rejection rates are very high to see if the exemption provisions and public interest override clauses contained in Section 8 are being invoked by the public information officers or the first appellate authorities with due application of mind. Fewer the number of rejections, lesser will be the number of appeals and complaints.
• All Information Commissions must collect and publish data about the number of times exemption clauses are invoked by public authorities to reject RTI applications as this is a statutory requirement.
• Information Commissions must collect and publish data about the rejection of RTI applications by organisations notified under Section 24 of the Central RTI Act and Section 21 of the J&K RTI Act in keeping with the statutory mandate of accounting for all instances of rejection of requests by public authorities.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice, in 1998 and 2005, and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”)
At Pune’s headquarters of the food supply department, the tehsildar is ignorant, even arrogant about proactive disclosure under Section 4 of the RTI Act
Since the last one week, I have been following up with the Food Supply office of the Pune district collectorate to gather information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. I am seeking information on the number of shopkeepers, in two particular zones, where women have complained that they have not been getting their rightful food grains, sugar and kerosene under the Public Distribution System (PDS) scheme, since several months and years.
While the newly launched Food Security Bill (FSB) has already run into controversy with a leading TV news channel portraying how wheat under this scheme is already being diverted into the open market in Delhi. The PDS scam has been going on brazenly for last several decades. Since no political leader or officer at any level bothers to address this issue, the PDS scam is a perennial news story for a journalist and perennial campaign for an activist.
Last week, the public information officer (PIO) of one of the zones of the food supply office in Pune was totally ignorant about Section 4 of the RTI Act itself. As mentioned in my last week’s column, she relented to give information after I educated her on Section 4. I had asked for information between 1 January 2012 and 30 September 2013, month wise, of the supply of wheat, rice, sugar and kerosene to the shopkeepers that fall under her zone.
However, the next day, when I went to collect the information, she proudly said that she had promptly bought a book of the RTI Act, which I appreciated. However, her next statement was that, “You have wrongly said you can get information instantly under Section 4. It is only under Section 7 that you can get information in 48 hours.’’ So, another round of explanation had to be done.”
I told her that the information I require comes under 11, 12, 13 sub-sections of the Section 4 of RTI Act. These states:
(xi) the budget allocated to each of its agency, indicating the particulars of all pans, proposed expenditures and reports o disbursements made;
(xii) the manner of execution of subsidy,
(xiii) particulars of recipients of concessions, permits or authorisations granted by it. She nodded in agreement.
The issue of my inspecting files under Sec 4 of the RTI Act, triggered off last fortnight after some women in a chawl in Bhavani Peth expressed their agony. However, on a visit to another chawl in Yerawada, I found that the women there too had a similar complaint. Hence, I decided to gather information of supply to all the eight zones from the food supply headquarters.
The PIO there asked me to meet the Tehsildar who heads the department. When I told her what I wanted, she got aggressive and said this information is not available here and that I would have to visit each of the eight zones to get it. I argued that being the headquarters, information on supplies to shopkeepers in all eight zones, must be made available here itself. In fact, it should have been posted on the website www.pune.gov.in . In any case, even if it is on the website, it is mandatory for the public authority to provide the information if a citizen visits it and demands it in the form of hard copies. She argued, “Yes, of course, it is all there on the website’’ and summoned the PIO to her cabin. The PIO muttered that it is in some other website and gave me the link – Egrains.nic.in/sinc. I checked the website but it does not seem a relevant one.
She then continued that it is not possible to keep such vast information in her office. I said it is her duty to upload it in the public domain. I gave her an example that if I require information about accidents from 10 different police stations under RTI, then I should get it at the headquarters of the traffic department and I, as a citizen, do not have to run from one police station to another. When she tried to be adamant despite my explanation, I told her that I would file a complaint with the State Information Commissioner in Pune as this amounts to denying information. She said OK to prove her point but then relented and asked the PIO to give the entire information. I would be collecting the documents on Thursday. Here too, the PIO insisted on Rs10 court fee stamp with a request letter for the information. I again had to explain to him that you need the court fee stamp only if you ask information under Section 6. He smiled.
My point is, even after eight years of the RTI Act, should a citizen be fighting it out to get his or her rightful information under Section 4 of the RTI Act? If this is the treatment given to a seasoned journalist/activist, then one can imagine what a common person is going through. The reason for this personal narration is to inspire citizens to visit offices to get the information they need and not be cowed down by excuses or arrogance of officers. Please read Section 4 carefully; if required take a printout of it when you visit the office. Share your experiences with Moneylife. I would be happy to answer your difficulties.
(Vinita Deshmukh is the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”)